Friday, November 6, 2015

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 9. Jesus on Marriage and "God made them Male & Female," (ii)

In the last post in this series we looked at Mark 10:2-10, one of the few places Jesus said more than a line or two about marriage. The context of those comments was a debate with certain Pharisees about divorce. In his rejection of the one-sided ease with which men were allowed to divorce their wives (leaving them in a precarious social and economic situation), Jesus quotes Genesis as a more basic text than Deuteronomy 24:1-4 which clearly allows men to divorce their wives. Quoting Genesis 1:27, Jesus said, “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” I argued that in the context of the debate it is most likely that this was about countering the notion that women were somehow a lesser version of human than were men. Both male and female are created in God’s image. There is no male priority, particularly when it comes to divorce.

Therefore, I do not think what Jesus says in that debate is as relevant to the question of gay and lesbian relationships as some others do.

That said, it is still the case “that from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” We do (mostly) come into the world as either male or female. Doesn’t that mean that marriage – and sex within marriage – between a man and a woman is the point of our being made male and female?

Maybe not. It is certainly significant that we are male and female. And sex between male and female is a good thing. But sex might not be the point. And neither is marriage. At least not in an eternal sense.

Let’s look at the other place where Jesus said more than a line or two about marriage. It occurs a little after his encounter with the Pharisees in Mark 10. This time, in Mark 12:18-27, it is some Sadducees who challenge him. Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection (they were “sad you see”). They present Jesus with a scenario based on Deuteronomy 25:5-6 which obliges the brother of a deceased man to marry his brother's widow in order to perpetuate the dead man’s heritage. The scenario involves one unlucky woman who ends up successively marrying seven brothers. In a sophomoric attempt to trap Jesus in what they see as the absurdity of physical resurrection, they ask, “In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.”

Jesus responds,

“Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”

Jesus’ answer is primarily about the resurrection and that God is a God of the living. But, as part of that he makes this interesting observation, “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

There is a lot that could be said about that. Jesus doesn’t say we will cease to be male or female in the age to come. But, he does say there will be no marriage (Jesus was not a Mormon). That suggests a couple of things:

1. However good they are as part of this age, sex and marriage are not part of God’s eternal plan.

2. Being made male and female is significant. Gender matters. But, being male and female is not necessarily about, or for, sex and marriage. Sex and marriage are not necessary for the full expression of our being made male and female.

This is why the early Church gave priority to celibacy. Jesus’ resurrection had changed things and inaugurated the new creation. Celibacy was understood to be a way – for both men and women – to live into that new creation even now. St Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200-258) refers to Mark 12 in an exhortation to consecrated virgins, “That which we shall be you have already begun to be.”

This is a challenge both to the modern notion that a fully human life must include sexual intercourse and the notion that marriage is the reason we are made male and female.

Jesus did not reject marriage. He attended the wedding at Cana and even provided wine for the celebration. He repeatedly spoke of the indissolubility of marriage. But, he does not appear to have been particularly sentimental or romantic about it. If anything he decentered and reoriented its importance (see What Jesus Commanded, Part 7:Sex, Marriage, & Family).

This last point is important. Jesus emphasized the new community that became the Church over other forms of community, including marriage and family. He identifies himself as the Bridegroom of that community. For Christians the basic social unit is not the married man and woman. It is not the individual. It is not the biological family. It is not the country/nation. For Christians, the basic social unit is the Church. It is in that context that we live out our maleness and femaleness, whether married or single or monastic.

Marriage and sexual intercourse make us one flesh/one body (for good – Mark 10:8 or ill – 1 Corinthians 6:16). But there is a more fundamental way we become one body. In baptism we become one with Christ and members of one another. That oneness includes both male and female whether single, celibate, monastic, or married. It is in the oneness of that body that complimentarity of our respective genders is expressed and the image of God most fully revealed. For the body of Christ, God made us male and female.

I am not saying that being made male and female is irrelevant to marriage and sexual relations. I have been happily married for 34 years and have three wonderful daughters. I appreciate the joys and pleasures of married life. As a fan of Dante who has also benefited from reading Charles Williams and Vladimir Solovyov, I appreciate the Church's ongoing reflection and am open to the ways romance and marriage can point us toward God’s courting of his creation and each soul. But, the truth is, that is an understanding that is rare before the late Middle Ages and is thus relatively new.

Our different genders are important. but the importance is about more than sex. I have written before that I think the difference matters and that consequently I hold that heterosexual marriage is different from the unions of gays and lesbians (see here). But, might the latter also point toward the divine courtship?

What I wonder is this. If membership in the body of Christ, rather than marriage and sexual relationships, is the primary and eternally significant place where our being made male and female is expressed, might there be a place within that body to accommodate committed monogamous same-sex relationships if they exhibit all the other marks of holiness that we hope for in marriage between a man and woman or in a community of vowed monastics?

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